- Brecht on Theatre by Bertolt Brecht, and: Brecht on Performance: Messingkauf and Modelbooks by Bertolt Brecht
John Willett’s 1964 compilation Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic introduced English speakers to the body of Bertolt Brecht’s theoretical writings and the development of his views on theatre. Until that point, for those who could not read German, his thoughts on an “epic” theatre of Verfremdung and dialectics were primarily known through critical studies; [End Page 169] Willett’s edition, his translations, text selection, and commentary are at the heart of understanding Brecht’s Anglophone reception.
Bloomsbury Methuen’s two recently published volumes—a fully revised Brecht on Theatre (BT) and a necessary companion Brecht on Performance (BP), edited by three eminent scholars of German theatre—provide English readers with a wider view of Brecht’s thoughts and practice. Drawing from volumes 21 to 25 of the authoritative Berlin and Frankfurt Edition of Brecht’s complete work published jointly by Suhrkamp and Aufbau (1988–2000), Steve Giles, Tom Kuhn, and Marc Silberman have republished the majority of essays from Willett’s compilation—which was amended in a second edition in 1974—with further annotation as well as additional texts by Brecht, many of which were unavailable at the time of the original edition.
Brecht on Theatre is divided into three parts focused on his writings during the Weimar Republic and the gradual adoption of a sociopolitical awareness to his anti-illusionary aesthetics; his lengthy exile and the maturation of theories on epic theatre; and his turn in postwar Germany towards a dialectical theatre. Rather than solely organizing the texts chronologically, the editors have grouped Brecht’s material thematically to focus on his changes to key theoretical points.
Though this third edition draws on Willett’s original, it is an autonomous publication in many respects. Almost half of the material is new in English translation. Further reflections by Brecht—many unpublished before his death—on Verfremdung, “historicization,” his changing views on Konstantin Stanislavsky, and Brecht’s concerns that his theatre remain entertaining and engaging while it instructed are included. The additions, often pragmatic in nature, reveal him wrestling with the relationship of both actor and spectator to theatrical work, each other, and society. Of the texts removed from Willett’s edition for this new publication, those specifically regarding Brecht’s experience with actors in production have been republished in Brecht on Performance; several essays less concentrated on theatre—though no less important to Brecht’s thoughts about the stage—have been newly translated in Bloomsbury Methuen’s Brecht on Film and Radio (edited by Marc Silberman, 2000) and Brecht on Art and Politics (edited by Tom Kuhn and Steve Giles, 2003).
The final part of Brecht on Theatre is complimented by the material in Brecht on Performance, which is essential for understanding the influence of his work as a director on his theoretical work about making theatre. Here the editors focus on Brecht’s practical approach to staging. Although the Short Organon for Theatre is included, Brecht on Theatre no longer centers on that standard account of Brechtian theatre. Rather, these two volumes intend to document more accurately Brecht’s development from epic theatre to a theatre that would further embrace the investigation and staging of contradictions.
Brecht on Performance is a vital aid to English speakers in understanding Brecht as a theatre practitioner as well as what constitutes Brechtian performance. For the first time, a full edition of the unfinished Messingkauf—translated as Buying Brass—is available in English. In this assemblage of theatrical dialogues, essays, and poems, four...